Under the leadership of Pr Semmler, the LCA has snuggled closer to LCMS, but records of this evolution, to our knowledge, will not be found in committee minutes or official policy.
Should be we be strengthening ties with with LCMS, or should we take another route? Bill Weiblen, a pastor, chaplain, professor and president of Wartburg Theological College, Iowa, attempts to answer these questions for the ALC in 1980, some 8 years before the ELCA officially came into existence on January 1, 1988. He writes on the differences between the ALC and the ELCA. The American Lutheran Church (ALC) was one of three church that united to form the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA). A brief timeline and flowchart of both churches is listed at the end of this post.
The post is lengthy and possibly imposing. May I suggest you read the conclusion at the end of the quoted article. To whet your appetite the following is an extract from that paragraph, “It is the mark of totalitarianism in both religion and politics to insist on monolithic understanding to suppress dissent.”
Toward Understanding One Another
Presented at the Meeting of the Commission on Fellowship,
Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod/The American Lutheran Church
St Louis, Missouri, 29 February 1980
At the last meeting of the Commission on Fellowship of LCMS-ALC it was suggested that an effort be made to identify a few of teh important points of difference that seem to keep the two Church bodies from being able to fully and honesty embrace each other in full Christian fellowship. It may be beneficial for us to state such differences in all candor and forthrightness so that we can find ways to remove barriers to unity. Christiana sisters and brothers should be able to be honest and direct with each other. In the delineation that follows such an attempt is made. Hopefully the effort will not appear judgemental.
The presentation simply attempts to raise a few points. There probably are issues at every point of doctrine that could be disputed and debated. The points that are discussed are prefaced with a general statement about the wide basis of agreement out of which the difference grew.
In accord with the above procedure it is important to recognize that we come from a common confessional background. We are of the same Lutheran lineage. There, of course, are historical factors that have made us what we are and some of the historical conditioning factors are:
Ethnic/Historical Conditioning Factors
The ALC is a merger of churches coming from Lutheran origins of different ethnic and ecclesiastical/confessional backgrounds. Therefore its synodical loyalties are seen in light of wider ecumenical possibilities.
The LCMS is a church that come from a rather homogenous German ethnic background and has experienced a consistent, strong ecclesiastical/confessional loyalty of over 125 years and therefore has an intense synodical consciousness.
Understanding of Authority
Both the ALC and LCMS affirm that they accept the Holy Scriptures as the only and true authority in all matters of Christian faith and life. But it is obvious in inter-synodical relations that there is a definite difference in the way authority itself is understood by each church.
Before we describe the differences between the ALC/LCMS, it probably will be helpful to quickly review what the phenomenon expressed by the word authority actually means.
From the viewpoint of religion in general and Christian theology in particular, authority is quite generally understood as the right and power to declare what is obligatory in doctrine and practice, This idea of the right and power to determine ultimate beliefs has traditionally been coupled with the presupposition that there must be one voice through which supreme authority is expressed. The papacy is built upon this concept of authority.
One of the main points of the Reformation protest was against the above concept of papal authority. Luther and subsequently the Lutheran Confessions, however, not only disavowed the legitimacy of papal authority but more importantly came out clear and strong for the final and exclusive authority of the gospel. The right and power to determine matters of Christian faith and life is the gospel as the preached and living word.
There is some difficulty with this understanding of authority in that such a view of authority does not satisfy people who want clear and definite external order as well as a quick and easy way to solve doctrinal disputes. Obviously it will make a difference in a person’s as well as a church’s concept of the gospel, scriptural authority, and hermeneutics, as to the presuppositions that are subsumed about authority. The following is an attempt to isolate the over-arching similarities and then to state some of the significant difference of the ALC and LCMS.
Both ALC and LCMS are obviously and totally committed to an evangelcial understanding of authority. Neither church boy would like to be thought of as a narrow, exclusivistic, authoritarian church body. But in spite of the pervasive commitment to a gospel-centered understanding of authority, clear differences are apparent:
The ALC tends to understand religious and doctrinal authority as something that can only be exercised in a broken human manner. ALC does not believe that such a stance leads to relativism but that it does demand a posture of certain open questions.
The LCMS tends to understand religious and doctrinal authority as something that is perfect and absolute. The stand tends to lead LCMS people to a posture that requires total consensus on all issues.
The LCMS and the ALC both stress, with great emphasis, that the Holy Scriptures are truly the Word of God and the only infallible authority in all matters of faith and life. When one remembers the many discussions representatives of these two church bodies have had with each other (during the past two decades alone) about the Word of God and Scripture, it becomes obvious that both church bodies are genuinely committed to a rigorous biblical basis to all of their theology. A reflection on developments since pulpit and altar fellowship was first declared in 1960 also makes clear that there are great differences about the church bodies view of the Holy Sciptures;
To the ALC, it is important to comprehend the Word of God as means of grace as well as ultimate authority. The ALC looks upon the Holy Scriptures as the Word of God of divine origin, but likewise the scriptures are human documents coming our of a variety of identifiable historical circumstances. Consequently the scriptures are to be studied, translated and interpreted as divinely inspired, as well as historically written records and testimony of God’s living, revealing Word.
LCMS has a tendency to subordinate the Word of God as means of grace to Word of God as ultimate authority. The LCMS stresses the identity of the words of the Holy Scriptures and Word of God. Indeed recognizing the human, historical dimension to the sacred scriptures are the inspired Word of God and without error, they convey only accurate information in all areas of human history and knowledge.
The ALC and LCMS both claim that the gospel is the center of the Old and New Testament Scriptures and that the message of Jesus Christ is the heart of the gospel. However, when it comes to the articulation of what the gospel is, it is obvious there are differences of emphasis:
The ALC stresses the gospel as the viva vox evangelii and concentrates on the kerygma. No doubt this emphasis tends to appear to the LCMS people as though the gospel is reduced to a rather subjective message. Fear of LCMS about ALC’s use in the historical/critical approach in biblical studies stems from this perception.
The LCMS lays emphasis upon the gospel in all its doctrinal articles. To the ALC people it appears that this LCMS emphasis tends to reduce the gospel to an extended set of doctrinal propositions. It at times appears to ALC people that in its strong emphasis on doctrinal purity, LCMS comes very close to subordinating the love principle to the truth principle.
Both ALC and LCMS would insist that they follow the historic Lutheran hermeneutical method. Both churches insist that the Scriptures should, first of all, be interpreted from their centre – Jesus Christ. Likewise, both insist that Scripture be interpreted by Scriptures. ALC and LCMS both habve statements about inspiration as being very essential in their whole understanding of Scripture and the word inerrancy, which seems to cause so much problem between the two churches, is use by both. There is no doubt that both ALC and LCMS have been influenced by the fundamentalism of the first half of this century with regard to the use of such terms as inerrancy.
The ALC does not advocate an easy transition from inspiration to inerrancy. From an ALC perspective, it appears that many LCMS teachers have themselves, qualified what they mean by the term “inerrancy.” However, it appears to the ALC that these qualifications mean very little in inter-church discussions.
The LCMS proceeds from the axia that Scripture should be interpreted by Scripture; that inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture needs to be recognized for an adequate understanding of Scripture; that other interpretative tools, functions and methods are not useful in the interpretation of Scripture.
In the area of hermeneutics, the most crucial point of difference lies in the use of another interpretive tools, assumptions and methods. This can be illustrated most clearly reference to the word “liberal” and what that connotes in the two churches.
The ALC cannot conscientiously construe liberal as always meaning something negative. The ALC distinguishes between liberal theology and liberal scholarship. ALC people tend to conclude that liberal scholarship means using all historical ethnological and archeological tools to understand texts. ALC scholars do not attribute evil, or maliciousness, to the tools per se or to the methods per se. ALC people, therefore, without deviousness or apology understand themselves to be liberal scholars.
In the LCMS, liberal is used usually in a pejorative, monolithic way. To the LCMS liberal theology proceeds from certain presuppositions like these:
1. Jesus was only a man like others.
2. What theologians must do is get behind the heterogeneity in all religious expression down to the psychological elements basic to all religious expression and there discover the unifying factors and accessible common denominators. Naturally LCMS representatives rightly conclude from these presuppositions that liberal theology would be destructive to the clear definite historical reality of the gospel.
Both the ALC and the LCMS regard the office of the ministry as having a divine institution and that there is a distinction between the pastoral vocation and the universal priesthood of all believers Neither the ALC or the LCMS believe that the pastoral office is a continuation of the priesthood of the Old Testament, not that it consists of certain rights and powers vested in the apostles which only the apostles and their successors can confer on others. Neither church believes that an indelible character is conferred upon the candidates by ordination. Both church bodies exhibit a strong sense of the vocation of the pastor being that of shepherd. Both churches stress the point that pastors are called by congregations and that it is on the basis of the call from the congregations that candidates are ordained.
In the ALC there is a lot of emphasis that when one is called into the holy ministry, we are talking about the ministry of the whole church. ALC people tend to emphasize the functional nature of the pastoral office and lay stress upon the fact that the pastoral vocation is one that exists only in the context of the universal priesthood.
In the actual exercise of the pastoral vocation, it seems to ALC people that the LCMS draws a more rigid difference between clergy and laity than prevails in the ALC. It may be that the consciousness of difference is in terms of expression rather than essence, but it does appear to ALC people that there is more of a priestly caste concern and mentality in the LCMS than there is amongst the ALC clergy and laity.
Another area that deserves consideration expressing some of the differences between the ALC and LCMS is that of how we are able to critically look at ourselves. Each of us legitimately proceeds from our own confessional self-understanding and identification, but ALC people believe there is a sharp divergence either in the willingness or capacity of the LCMS rigorously to be self-critical.
It is the mark of totalitarianism in both religion and politics to insist on monolithic understanding to suppress dissent, to discredit premises which undergirds the lives of others. to protect constituents from other points of view, to entrust guidance to an oligarchy, and to be fearful of religion. When ALC teachers use language patterns suggesting that repentance encompasses the whole of life, that means ruing not only moral infidelity but doctrinal inflexibility. ALC people are not seeking thereby to destroy the truth, they only want to say that all human formulations have a tentativeness within them. They do not want Christian doctrine to become the occasion for idolatry. Our trust is in God not in human formulations about God.
Lutherans have freely criticized others. They have postured themselves as ‘guardians’ of the truth – but they err on two counts; they have been loveless in their relationships and they have used truth as a dividing rather than a uniting tool.
Criticism from without will always have some effect. It may reinforce prejudices already in control or it can generate honest review which eventuates in change. But the desired condition is that critical self-analysis emerge from within. To have that, a church must not only obey believe in the Reformation, but carry through the continuing reformation of the body of Christ. Without this, churches becomes sects. While conscious of our own flaws, we would charitably suggest that the LCMS has much to learn in this respect. The best of both worlds would bear much fruit if we would have vigorous evangelical, academically rigorous self-analysis as a natural part of each church.
The LCA has barely come of age. We are not yet clear about the presence we wish to have in society. Bill Weiblen made clear how the LCMS operates and appeared to have little confidence in finding a way forward with them. There are clear correlations with the LCA, however, our tensions are both with the LCMS and within – the pre-union Synods, ELCA (Evangelical Church of Australia) and UELCA (United Evangelical Church of Australia), continue to exhibit different theologies in individuals to this day.
The LCA will continue to experience division until we can step away from conservative, domineering, monolithic and totalitarian hermeneutics and theologies.
In 1960 the American Lutheran Church, the United Evangelical Lutheran Church, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church merged to form The American Lutheran Church, with the Lutheran Free Church joining in 1963. The ALC brought approximately 2.25 million members into the ELCA. Its immigrant heritage came mostly from Germany, Norway, and Denmark. It was the most theologically conservative of the forming bodies, having a heritage of Old Lutheran theology.
This site makes it easier to understand the “bewildering array of Lutheran church bodies (or “synods”) that have existed in (the USA)”.
The Air I Breathe is Wartburg Air, Edited by Craig Nessan, 2003
- Agreement between LCMS & conservative Anglicans (geneveith.com)